Feroz Bhagat Interview
Hundred plays in 43 years. Barring a handful almost all did over 100 shows. Not many on Gujarati stage can match this track record. CHHANE PAGLE AAVYU MAUT, AAJE DHANDO BAND CHE, MALVA JEVA MANSO, PITRUDEVOBHAVO, KA-PURUSH MAHA-PURUSH, ADHURA TOYE MADHURA, CARBON COPY, KEM CHO MAJAMA, AA PAAR KE PELE PAAR, U-TURN, MASTIMA MARRIAGE MARRIAGE MA MASTI, UMAR CHE ANTIQUE DIL ROMANTIC, JAA TARI SAATHE KITTA, SOORANG are some of the plays in which Bhagat acted and directed as well. Having started professional life in 1972 Bhagat is still going strong on stage and his shows still perform to packed houses.

 By Jahnavi Pal

"It's not been an easy journey, " Bhagat reminisces. "I began my career in 1972 in a play called DHARTI NO CHEDO GHAR which was directed by the late Sohrab Modi and written by Pragji Dosa. I was only 14 and played a villain at this age with a big moustache stuck on to my face. This experience was so wonderful that I decided that the only thing I wanted to do was to become an actor. But unfortunately that was not to be. My family was facing financial problems and I was compelled to take up a job. So for the next four years I was unable to follow my dream."

In 1979 Bhagat acted in and directed and produced his first play on Gujarati stage called CHHANE PAGLE AAVYU MAUT. This play got mixed reviews. Some appreciated it and many felt I was a newcomer and hence weren't very kind. I was also working with Bombay Dyeing and I would travel all the way to the factory in Kalyan. The management was very accommodating but after 20 years of working with them I resigned and turned towards professional theatre full time.

It was my second play, AAJE DHANDO BAND CHE adapted from the Marathi play AAJ DHANDA BAND AAHE which I directed. This gave me a lot of fame and recognition. I can say this was a major turning point in my life and the most exciting phase of my life. It was a story of a male and female prostitute falling in love. As the subject was too bold all Gujarati producers refused to back it. I was struggling with it when Tutu Sharma came to see my play CHHANE PAGLE AAVYU MAUT. I told him that I had a script for a new play which he heard. He said he would back it and asked me to act in it. But I refused saying people hadn't accepted me in my first play so he asked me to cast for it and direct it. I cast Paresh Rawal who was not doing so many films then and Chitra in the lead roles. The play was a hit but after the first show Paresh had a problem with his leg and he couldn't do the next show. I stepped in at the last minute and as Chitra too had backed out we took Zankhana Desai and the rest is history. All our shows ran houseful and I haven't looked back ever since. In fact after the success of this play Burjor Patel, Dinyar Contractor and many others asked me to direct their English plays which I did."

After 1995 all Bhagat's plays did 100 plus shows and this is a feat that probably nobody has matched. It's two decades and Bhagat is still a hit!

Talking of those who helped him reach this height he says, "The writer of all my plays, Pravin Solanki was a huge guiding force. He not only helped me but encouraged me and I owe him a lot. The other two who have been my support are Zankhana Desai and Apara Mehta. Apara and I did the super hit play ADHURA TOYE MADHURA based on which BAGHBAAN was later made. We did 350 shows and as many as 42 shows in a month!"

Sharing an unforgettable incident Bhagat says, "I will never forget the play PUCHCHE DIKRI. I had cast Priya Tendulkar for this one. I was going through a very depressing phase in my life. For some reason Priya was very unhappy with me and she walked out of the play when the GR was going on saying she had a recording to do. And she never returned. Apara Mehta stepped in and saved me from a big disaster. She rehearsed through the night and performed for the opening show the very next day. We had a houseful show but before the play we made an announcement that Priya had been replaced and if anyone so desired could take a refund. But as luck would have it Apara was only free for that one show as she was busy with her other play and once again I needed a replacement. Amee Trivedi did the next show. We had a new heroine every week! But then Ragini was signed and she went on to do 140 shows.

"In so many years of my career on stage there have been many such moments but I must share an incident that was really very unique. We were to perform AAJE DHANDO BAND CHE at Patkar with Zankhana who was a big name and we had already sold out. Now the actor who was playing her pimp was a Marathi stage actor and he wasn't informed about this show so he didn't turn up. I was playing the lead. Pravin Solanki who was also in the play came up with a suggestion and told me to change my get up by sticking on a beard and play the pimp's role as I had no scenes with the heroine's pimp and this would enable me to play his role. I did that in the short time available to me and even changed my voice bringing in a gruff edge and pulled this off. It so happened that the legendary Vijay Dutt had come to see the play and he came backstage to compliment the person playing the pimp. When I told him it was me he couldn't believe it."

Bhagat says he has had many proud moments on stage but what really makes him happy is when people have helped him in real life. "Whenever I have been faced with difficulties people have come to my rescue. I don't believe in awards as I know how that game works. For that reason I have requested people to not even nominate me as I know in the end the award will go to someone else! But rewards in real life have been a plenty. This is what keeps me going. I have seen a lot of struggle and have been made to stand in a queue outside producers' offices but today am happy with what I have achieved."

Bhagat's passion and dedication for theatre is evident as he has lived and breathed only theatre for over four decades. "A day before my premier show in Ahmedabad for AA PAAR YA PELE PAAR I got a paralytic stroke. We were booked for 22 more shows and I was slurring and dragging my foot due to the stroke. The neurologist told me I could get another attack in the next 24 hours and had to be very careful. Once again Pravin Solanki came to my rescue. He changed a line in my daughter's dialogue and now she had to say that I was an alcoholic and hence could justify my speech and foot movement. Two doctors stood in the wings while I performed. I didn't even inform my family back home. My speech improved after about six-seven shows but it took a while to correct my limbs. The public loved this play."

Bhagat says he always was keen on becoming a film star and his mother who was an actor on Parsi stage was his inspiration. "I always wanted to be in the movies and Shammi Kapoor and Rajesh Khanna were my heroes. In fact Rajesh Khanna who had come to watch ADHURA TOYE MADHURA told me I was copying him. I said yes I was as he was my hero. We then decided to do a play together KUCH KHATTI KUCH MEETHI with him and Dimple but it didn't take off due to his illness. He would often tell me it was difficult to do what I was doing as there are no retakes and the lines are too long to remember. He would tell me to teach him how to act on stage. But as Kakaji (referring to Rajesh Khanna) always said that acting is 20% talent and 80% luck I think destiny had other plans for me."

Bhagat states that it was Kanti Madia who taught him how to act and the other legendary director who guided him was Arvind Thakkar. For now life is treating him well but the lockdown he says is very depressing and he longs to get back on stage. "It's been five months that I haven't stepped out of my house and I am looking forward to getting back to my work."

*Jahnavi Pal is a journalist, writer and theatre buff

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